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Blackhawks Buzz: Chicago to take on the Avalanche without Toews

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


After a dreadful start to the season, the Colorado Avalanche picked up the pace in December and January, going on an 18-8-2 run to lift themselves into the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. They've won five of their last six outings, including a 4-3 come-from-behind victory against the Pacific-leading Kings last Wednesday—despite being outshot 38-19 in the contest. The Blackhawks were last in action a week ago, when they dropped a 5-0 decision in Carolina, but January was a still prosperous time for the conference leaders, who put together an 11-3-0 record. Chicago enters Tuesday's matchup seeking their third win in four matchups against the Avs this season, but they'll need to secure two points without the help of captain Jonathan Toews, who must serve a one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game.


A big reason for Colorado's recent form has been the play of starting netminder Semyon Varlamov, who has won his last four outings, allowing just one goal in each appearance. The former first-round pick has been strong against Chicago over his career, although he's been shakier recently. Varlamov stopped 29 shots on Dec. 15 to blank the Blackhawks 3-0 at the United Center, but allowed eight goals combined in the next two tilts, taking both losses. At the other end of the ice, Corey Crawford should be well-rested after starting 11 of Chicago's 14 games last month. He was named the NHL's Second Star of the Month after posting a 9-2-0 record with a .952 save percentage and two shutouts. Both netminders seem to be in top condition at this point in the season, and with two quick transition teams on the docket, it's likely both will be called upon to make timely saves on Tuesday.


Colorado's representative to the All-Star Game was Matt Duchene, who led the team with 23 goals—sharing seventh in the league—and 42 points at the break. He has three tallies and three helpers in three matchups against Chicago this season, including a three-point outing (2G, 1A) on Jan. 10 in Chicago. The 25-year-old has a goal and three assists in his last four games while skating on the top line alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Tanguay; the trio has posted above-average shot metrics (51.5 CF%) for a team that is regularly on the wrong end of the possession battle. When they're on the ice they're consistently generating scoring chances utilizing their speed on the rush and shooting ability, so the Blackhawks will likely see them out in key offensive zone situations on Tuesday.


With Toews out of the lineup on Tuesday, there's a big hole to fill at the first-line center position, and Head Coach Joel Quenneville will turn to youngster Teuvo Teravainen, who has seen some time with the top trio this season and was slotted there during Monday's practice in Denver. With Toews out, Chicago could see some dropoff at the dot, where the captain has been one of the league's most prolific faceoff men this season, since Teravainen has been mostly playing wing. But there's no question that Quenneville is looking for the 21-year-old—who has 22 points in 49 games this season—to showcase his high-end skill and passing ability and play a more prominent offensive role in Colorado. Teravainen's spot on the third line will be occupied by Richard Panik, who has two goals and an assist in eight games since joining the Blackhawks from the Toronto organization last month.


Strong goaltending has masked some of Colorado's structural issues this season: namely, they've allowed the most shot attempts at even strength out of all 30 clubs. They're leaking 61.0 per 60 minutes (per, but only around half of those ever make it to the netminder due to diligent shot blocking. The Avs lead the league with 707 blocked shots at EV, plus 121 more logged on the penalty kill, and while it's a strategy that can often frustrate creative teams, it's not a sustainable model for long-term success. The Blackhawks have struggled against teams that collapse well in the defensive zone, but they can help their own cause on Tuesday but establishing a lead and taking advantage of their power-play opportunities; Colorado is in the bottom-third of the league while down a man, and they've been one of the most penalized teams this season (149 penalties taken, 25th).


Tuesday's tilt pits the Blackhawks against an opponent who they've had mixed results against over the past few years. When they're clicking and well-organized in all three zones, they've been able to overwhelm the Avs, who can be somewhat disastrous in their own zone. When Colorado is on their front foot, however, they can cause plenty of trouble with the speed of MacKinnon, Duchene, captain Gabriel Landeskog and puck-moving defenseman Tyson Barrie. Playing a structured, 60-minute game will be key for the visitors, who is missing a big part of their top six in Toews, but the matchup is one that could feature end-to-end hockey with plenty of action for two star goaltenders in Varlamov and Crawford.

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